After Norma Slavit’s husband of 47 years died in 2004, she struggled to get through the long days and nights without him. Slavit, a retired teacher and publicist, approached synagogues near her home in San Jose in hopes of finding a support group.
“The sense of loss is tremendous, especially if you had a wonderful marriage like Herb and I did,” Slavit said. “I realized other people must be dealing with loss, too.”
They are. The 2010 U.S. Census indicates that 28 percent of people 65 and older have lost their spouses. Hospitals, senior homes and religious organizations across the country offer short-term grief support programs.
Slavit learned about one such group, in Los Altos, and attended a meeting. But she never went back.
“I didn’t see any Jewish faces there,” she said, so she decided to start her own group.
In August 2006, she approached the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. “They said they would step up to the plate, and they did,” Slavit said.
Now, the Senior Jewish Widows/Widowers/Singles of Silicon Valley group is getting ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary in September. A gala at a local restaurant is in the works.
“Today, we have 35 to 40 people involved, the majority in their 70s, all active seniors. We meet once a month at the JCC and we have several parties each year,” Slavit said. “We have come a long way from that first meeting, when we started with a handful of people and some representatives from the JCC, Jewish Family Services [of Silicon Valley] and the Jewish Federation [of Silicon Valley].”
Vlada Gelfond, a marriage and family therapist, was at that meeting.
“Many support groups for grieving people dissolve after a year or two, but this group made the decision to combine support with social connections and entertaining activities,” said Gelfond, associate executive director of the Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley.
“This is a strong group, a productive group, a group with interesting activities,” Gelfond added. “I am proud that they decided to keep it open to new people.”
Some of the group’s activities are for the mind, some are for the body and some are just for fun. Members don’t have to be Jewish, and those who are divorced or single are as welcome as widows and widowers.
Speakers have included a rabbi with tips on writing wills, a travel agent, an accountant, a police officer who discussed personal safety and a surgeon who talked about back pain. The topic at the June meeting was “How to maximize your memory.”
“One member spoke to us about Jewish pirates — who knew? We’ve had choral groups, a local newspaper columnist, a concert pianist and a program on [author] John Steinbeck,” Slavit said. The group also put on a play she wrote about dating for seniors. Afterward, a social worker spoke on the topic.
Slavit knows something about dating. At a party sponsored by the group two years ago, she met Paul Staschower. Now the two are engaged.
“Out of a core group of 12 or 14 longtime members, half of us are engaged or married now,” Slavit said. “That said, we are not a match-making group. We concentrate on supporting each other.”
Some of that support is extended to the community at large, such as when the group collects toys for needy children. Some of the support is purely social — dinners at area restaurants and short trips to scenic spots such as Half Moon Bay. Then there are the holiday parties.
Larry Siders, a resident of Cupertino who has been in the group for four years, said this about the parties: “After my wife died five years ago, it was hell for me to go into a crowded room alone after all those years with my wife at my side. Friends recommended that I go to one of the group’s meetings. I finally got up the nerve — and I liked it a lot.”
Siders still goes to the parties, and he attends the meetings as well. “These are down-to-earth people, friendly people, people who understand your situation,” Siders said. He retired in 1996 as a professional photographer who shot many weddings and bat and bar mitzvahs.
Watching the group grow has been gratifying, Slavit said.
“I helped myself and along the way I helped others as well,” she said. “Together, we have found a way to connect and to move forward, reinventing ourselves as we begin new chapters in our lives.”
Senior Jewish Widows/Widowers/Singles of Silicon Valley meets once a month, sometimes at Addison-Penzak JCC of Silicon Valley, Los Gatos. Open to non-Jews, as well. Information: (408)252-2323.